Tell me, dear readers, is this not a spectacular place to swim? Even old Caracalla would have to admire the classic natatorium at the New Orleans Athletic Club.
I’ve been swimming there every night lately – a half a mile at least, sometimes a mile or more when I’m feeling all stretched out and relaxed. Crawl, breast stroke, back stroke. Forty yards to the lap, 44 laps to the mile. The pecs, traps, and lats on this geezerly torso are shaping up nicely. The wind is back in my lungs. I’ve dropped two belt notches. And I’ve had moments of blissfully expanded consciousness during longer swims. Nirvana is waiting.
The NOAC pool looks the same as I remember from my first dip there in the early ‘70s. Meanwhile there have been policy and physical plant changes that make the whole experience a little less remarkable. The water used to come from a deep artesian well under Rampart Street and was claimed to have the same consistency of salts and minerals of mid-Atlantic seawater. The ancient Greeks had a word for the thalassatherapeutic effects of brine on the body and mind. The word escapes me now. But I do recall the pool was very salty, and it felt great.
The club was strictly stag back then and we all swam naked. Now it’s co-ed and bathing suits are required. You can guess which part of club policy I’d like to amend. Hubba hubba, wouldn’t that fog the goggles?
Even a solitary pursuit like swimming laps is a social exercise in New Orleans. I’ve developed a small circle of pool buddies. There’s a Broadway show producer sojourning here, a U.S. Army intelligence officer, public radio reporter, art dealer, landscape architect and other interesting company. And when I’m completely alone, I find myself communing with the spirits of all the swimmers who have trained in this pool since it opened in 1929 – especially the great Johnny Weissmuller.
Weissmuller swam here whenever he was in town on publicity tours for his Tarzan movies (if you haven’t seen one lately, go right now to Netflix. They’re enormously entertaining and sexy in that pre-Code Hollywood way). It pleases me no end to paddle along in the champion's wake. Some nights when I feel exhausted and ready to stop, I hear someone sweetly popping the speed bag on the mezzanine over the pool. And I think of Weissmuller, so perfect in physique and character. I push off for another lap, telling myself: "You can do this."